Author: Veronika Štěpková (IMS FSV UK)



The contemporary neoliberal mainstream often views empowerment as the only means of improving living conditions of the poor. This essay argues that even though women’s education in madrasahs[1] does not necessarily lead to empowerment, it can importantly advance women’s living conditions by increasing their value in a marriage market. This is a common outcome of women’s education in many Indian madrasahs as the curriculum emphasizes character building and domestic skills.[2] From this viewpoint, madrasahs tackle the social exclusion and potentially also the economic aspect of poverty.

With the newly emphasized intrinsic importance of education for development, the theme has attracted new attention in the academic and political discourse. While many authors view any kind of education predominantly through the lenses of empowerment, others consider the interconnection of both empowerment and respect in a society. Accordingly, Kabeer[3] distinguishes between approaches focused on a vertical model of inequality (based on dissatisfaction of basic needs and examined by Hasan, Jeffrey and Jeffrey and Menon) and approaches tackling the issue of social evaluation (e.g. Winkelman). The following text analyzes the relationship between education and empowerment in case of Indian Muslim women’s education and introduces social inclusion as another important variable and another mean and end of development.

This essay will proceeds in the following three parts. The first section will critically examine the concept of empowerment and contextualize it within a wider developmental discourse. It will also point out its insufficiency, which might be complemented by the concept of social inclusion. The following section will analyze the effect of education in madrasahs on three important aspects of empowerment which are (1) outside household employment, (2) decision-making in a family and (3) enforcement of rights under Muslim Family law. The third section will investigate the effect of madrasahs on social inclusion. Finally, the essay will summarize the application of the two main concepts – empowerment and social inclusion – on the example of madrasahs.

Empowerment and its relationship with Social In/exclusion

The concept of empowerment is an assemblage of principles from which the basics are self-reliance, skills and education as a means of self-sufficiency, the individual as a master of his/her destiny, free agency in public sphere and social learning. This self-help process[4] of obtaining opportunities in order to eliminate future dependency is based upon the belief in a self-regulating individual. In the context of Muslim women, “empowerment” is deeply infused with the framework of how “the Oriental woman” needs to be liberated[5]  to subsequently promote the overall welfare of a society.[6] However, it can also have a negative impact on social cohesion and induce conflicts between individuals of the same interests.[7] According to an extreme interpretation of the concept, people can do no bad as everything is part of social learning and will, in the end, lead to global good. An agency of a society composed of empowered individuals is viewed as superior to politics imposed by the state.[8]


Amartya Sen[9] describes empowerment as a process of enlarging freedoms and gaining capabilities. According to Sen, empowerment provides the best basis for thinking about development as it underlies the importance of removing obstacles to one’s agency and reflects the need for non-material aspects in life and multivariate nature of human needs.[10] Even though eliminating constraints which prevent people from exercising free will is clearly a very desirable goal, it often coincides with another aspect of poverty – social exclusion which could be incorporated in Sen’s theory as a capability to interact freely with a society.[11]  However, in practice the two necessary conditions of human flourishing, social inclusion and freedom of agency, might present potentially conflicting factors (e.g. in case of Muslim women subordination). Some kinds of enlarged capabilities (public participation) might run against the rules of a traditional society and therefore cause a decline of their social inclusion in important aspects of communitarian life (e.g. marriage market).

Empowerment is an individualistic ideology based on values of Western modernity which lacks the dimension of social environment. The traditional Muslim society values a patriarchal family, therefore the specific understanding of moral and communitarian unity might be incompatible with individualistic behavior. Subsequently, the pursuit of empowerment may have a negative impact on the overall living conditions (in its extreme, for example, punishment for divorce initiated by women in certain orthodox communities). Acquirement of self-reliance often requires an initial support of the society. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges of developmental research and agencies is to integrate the modern idea of empowerment to a traditional society without fostering social tensions.

The effect of education in madrasahs on outside household employment

About 16% of Muslim women in India are employed, which is less than half of working Hindu women from Scheduled Castes and Tribes.[12] The employment rate is significantly determined by women’s status in the given area. Das identifies patriarchal control over women’s lives, norms of post-marital residence, physical mobility and abilities as main variables determining female outside household employment.[13] Many constraints preventing Indian Muslim women employment are derived from the rules of the given community, but they are also complemented by external factors such as seclusion on the labor market.

These constraints often originate in the perception of Muslim women’s role in a society. The same perception also influences their school attendance. Throughout the school years girls frequently act upon seeing their lives from the perspective of marriage and domestic work. Jeffrey and Jeffrey identify outside household employment after school graduation as exceptional and a common sign of household financial problems.[14] Winkelman interviewed former madrasahs’ schoolgirls in rural areas of the Uttar Pradesh and found a majority in households and some in teaching positions which are widely perceived as not interfering with women’s marriage life.[15] When asked about the mission of madrasahs, most stressed the importance of transforming girls into respectable mothers. [16] Women’s education is viewed positively predominantly in its moral building aspect whereas future employment is mostly undesirable. As a result, madrasahs’ curriculums are primarily conceived to promote ideological reproduction.[17]

Liessman[18] criticizes Western education as too dependent on economic goals of the given society; however, madrasahs present another unhealthy extreme. Due to its lack of linkup with future employment, Muslim women’s religious education loses its legitimacy as female employment is proven to have positive affect on the fertility rate, child care, overall family socioeconomic welfare etc.[19] Shariff mentions family land ownership as a variable supporting Muslim women’s employment and raising their respect in a community, especially in rural areas.[20] At the same time, Jeffrey and Jeffrey claim that involvement in informal social networks helps Muslim women to accede to most common low-paid positions.[21] Therefore, the specific character of social involvement and particular living conditions appear more significant to Muslim women’s outside household employment than religious education.

The effect of education in madrasahs on decision-making in a family

Due to the amount of time spent in the household, domestic environment remains the primary arena of Muslim women’s empowerment. Nearly one-third of Indian Muslim women discuss the desired number of children, major investments, death and birth ceremonies, major purchases, family members’ employment and education with their husbands.[22] This relatively positive outcome in comparison with Scheduled castes is outweighed by 90 per cent of Indian Muslim women who have to ask their husbands for permission for any outside-household mobility.[23] At the same time, the amount of children and allowed mobility can be identified as the most important variables affecting crucial aspects of empowerment, including employment and participation in public affairs.

According to research by Hasan and Menon, female educational level (both religious and non-religious education) does not appear to have a significant impact on their decision-making in the family. The same research also indicates a negative correlation between Muslim women’s socio-economic status and their participation in decision-making.[24] Hasan and Menon also include regional variations in their interpretation of the problem. The two main hindrances of greater decision-making of Muslim women might be therefore identified as community (in the form of customs, expectations, pressure) and state (indirectly, for not providing enough incentives for employment, education etc.). This is true especially in orthodox families dwelling in rural areas where girls educated predominantly in madrasahs face the effect of both these factors with greater intensity.

The key problem of Hasan’s and Menon’s analysis is that it relies too much on quantitative research and lacks an in-depth explanation of the communitarian factors constraining women’s agency. Kabeer complements the picture by arguing that women are socialized in their traditional roles which consequently influence their self-perception. Any sudden exercise of greater decisive power may disturb the emotional equilibrium in the family and community.[25] Subsequently, it may lower their already-limited status in a society and make their living-conditions even more difficult.

Majority of Muslim women educated in madrasahs come from families with poor socio-economic background.[26] As it is often the norms of the community and the status of a family that significantly determine the possibilities of women’s agency, the initial step to empowerment might appear even more difficult for Muslim women educated in madrasahs.  As reported by Vatuk, there are almost no women educated in madrasahs participating in the new Islam feminist movement.[27]  The argument can be made that this short term challenge can be overcome by collective action. However, even in this case, religious education does not appear to contribute to greater Muslim women empowerment.

The effect of education in madrasahs on enforcement of women’s rights under Muslim Family Law

Agnes demonstrated in her comparative study of Muslim and Hindi Family Law that the former enables women more agency in several important aspects including option for puberty, right to matrimonial residence, pre-wedding agreement, right over separate property etc.[28] The contractual character of marriage then allows inclusion of financial provisions in favor of women. Consequently, the Indian Muslim feminist movement uses only Quran-based arguments to advocate greater female agency in familial affairs.[29] However, as illustrated by the strength of the movement, the enforceability of law in women’s affairs lags far behind its potential. One of the probable explanations presents the communitarian aspect of law application. The character of Islamic law is based more on principles than on precisely defined rules and the unsatisfactory competence of Indian courts to judge on Islamic law often provides a greater space for the Muslim community to interpret the law by itself.[30]  Female identity is then often constructed by this application of law as dependent and without individual interest.[31]

One of the major drawbacks of madrasahs’ curriculum is that it does not fulfill its potential to provide instructions for legal interpretation of Quran and does not promote social change. In addition to lack of knowledge, Muslim women often do not exercise their rights granted by both Indian and Muslim law because it is not considered adequate. The problem is illustrated by Fazalhboy who points out that operating with immovable property, which is a common form of inheritance, is not considered proper for Muslim women and might cause tensions in a family.[32] In addition, male family members are expected to receive at least twice as much as the women, notwithstanding whether in a position of wife or daughter. In most cases, the total of women’s share is supposed to be given as a dowry.[33] Later, the women are often seen as belonging to a different family and might morally loose the right for inheritance.

Winkelman provides an optimistic perspective on Muslim religious education by claiming that the schoolgirls even though not visibly breaking with many customary social patterns read Quran beyond the communitarian patriarchal patterns. [34] This in turn is supposed to give Muslim women the feeling of being empowered in terms of being in charge of their wishes and concerns regarding reproduction, education etc.[35] The strength of this “invisible empowerment” can be only verified by the historical outcome of Muslim women emancipation. However, by offering basic legal education madrasahs might contribute more significantly to Muslim women’s empowerment. For now, the communitarian aspect remains decisive for enforcement of Muslim women’s rights.

The impact of education in madrasahs on social inclusion

Madrasahs curriculums are often constructed to shape women’s morality in terms of submission to traditional patriarchal patterns and capability of promoting religious transmission to their children. The character of customary Muslim marriage which might be also viewed as an important financial contract then allows it to provide a substitute for lack of employment opportunities.[36] The anxiety of financial uncertainty then might create a tendency of young Muslim women and their families to support certain form of morality and purity as an added value on the marriage market. Mahmood argues that in many cases Muslim women actively support the rise of fundamentalist values as they are acting under economic pressure while choosing their marriage partner.[37] Learnt piety presents therefore an important factor increasing one’s chances for a financially secure marriage. [38]

However, some traditional values might impose heavy constraints on women’s agency. Financial security then might be in some cases bought out by restricted mobility, participation in public affairs and limited decision-making. The effect is especially visible in the condition of absence of employment and secular education opportunities and poverty. Madrasahs therefore might serve as an institution which is instrumental to this trade off and also promotes social inclusion if understood as greater integration within patriarchal societal patterns.


Still, social inclusion in a family might in this case acquire a passive character illustrated by the lack of agency in social relations. In addition, this kind of integration tends to conduce to social exclusion from public institutions.[39] Nussbaum[40] defines three categories of capabilities from which the basic (the material and physical equipment for further development) can be attained by social inclusion through financially convenient marriage. Education in madrasahs as a beneficial factor in the marriage market may promote social inclusion in terms of finding an economically secure partner and consequently contribute to the alleviation of poverty and acquirement of some basic capabilities. However, it is also a hindering factor to some important internal capabilities (based on skills developed in social interaction) as e.g. enforcement of law, decision-making in a household and exercise of political choice. Combined capabilities, which Nussbaum defines as internal capabilities complemented by “suitable external conditions for the exercise of the function”, might be affected both positively and negatively. Winkelman states that the gained religious knowledge might improve young women’s respect in a society and consequently also their living conditions and empowerment within the communitarian framework.[41] In contrast, if adherence to strict patriarchal norms is used to find a marriage partner, greater constraints to women’s agency could be assumed from the part of family in law.

Madrasahs present a subject of controversy as some argue that it would be more convenient to eliminate Muslim religious education and instead promote women’s access to secular schools. Some also claim that madrasahs would be more effective if vocational classes were included.[42] Even though the teaching system would need a significant improvement in order to promote women’s empowerment, madrasahs still have a value in the eyes of potential families in law. In addition, as this essay focuses more on poverty alleviation, it omits to address the intrinsic importance of religion and traditions. Despite some important drawbacks in the long term madrasahs might ensure young women’s basic provisions in case of extreme poverty through social inclusion and contribute to ideological transmission.


Given the limited space, this essay has inevitably sacrificed depth especially in treating Muslims in India as a monolithic community and in emphasizing the negative impacts of religious education. Nevertheless, it showed the impact of madrasahs on the three most commonly stressed aspects of empowerment and on social inclusion. For the former, socio-economic environment appears more significant for women’s empowerment than education in madrasahs. However, it must be noted that the text focuses on very limited areas which were chosen and analyzed through the Western perspective on female empowerment. The potential positive impact of religious education on women’s lives might be incompatible with traditional feminist perceptions. Still, for now the example of madrasahs has proven that not every kind of education necessarily advances women’s empowerment understood as expansion of certain basic capabilities.

In contrast, the effect on social inclusion in terms of value in a marriage market appears to be promoted by Muslim religious education. Still, this kind of social inclusion may bear significant limitations to women’s agency in the long term. The perception of marriage as a form of economic provision can be easily criticized on many grounds but in the conditions of extreme poverty it might appear as the only possible solution.

Besides forming Muslim women’s identity, madrasahs could also reduce their dependency on future husbands by providing vocational training. Although the practical skills have already been included in curriculums of some madrasahs, their number remains very limited. The already-discussed reform based on greater inclusion of secular subjects could enable madrasahs to serve not only as an instrument of strengthening the patriarchal system but also substantially contribute to women’s empowerment. This, however, implies that the change should come primarily from within the Muslim community.

[1] A type of Muslim school, mostly religious. Madrasahs do not present the prevailing type of Muslim education. Still, they significantly shapes social reality in many Indian rural areas.

[2] Examples in case studies by Winkelman, M. From Behind the Curtain (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

[3]  Kabeer,N., Social Exclusion and the MDGs: The challenge of durable inequalities in the Asian context (Asia 2015, 2006), 3.

[4] Sideras, J., Kartik, R., Institutions, Globalisation and Empowerment, (Northampton: Edward Publishing, 2006), 12.

[5] Gole, N., The gendered nature of the public sphere, Public Culture (10)1 (1997), 61 – 81. Badran, M., Rethinking Empowerment of Women and Radicalization (DIIS: Copenhagen, 2005/6).

[6] Friedmann, J., Empowerment: The politics of alternative development (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 26.

[7] Nussbaum goes further in Sen’s capability approach by stressing that “any particular freedom involves the idea of constraint by other’s freedoms.” Nussbaum, M., Capabilities, Freedom and Inequalit (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006). 51.

[8] Friedmann, Empowerment, 56.

[9] Sen stresses the importance of this concept for women who are often treated as passive dependents and victims of a GDP-growth oriented developmental paradigm. Sen, A., Development as freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Introduction.

[10] Sen cited by Nussbauam in Capabilities, Freedom and Equality (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 40.

[11] Sen, A., Social exclusion: Concept application and scrutiny (Asian Development Bank, 2000).

[12]Hameed, S. National Commission for Women Report, Muslim Women, (Government of India, 2000), chapter 3.

[13] Das, M., “Muslim Women’s Labor Force,” in In a Minority: Essays on Muslim Women in India, ed.  Hasan, Z., Menon, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), chapter 5.

[14] Jeffrey, P., Jeffrey, R., “The Mother’s Lap and the Civilizing Mission,” in In a Minority, Hasan, 122.

[15] Jeffrey, Jeffrey, “Mission.“

[16] Winkelman, M., From behind the curtain (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 95.

[17] Alam, A. “The Enemy Within: Madrasa and Muslim Identity in North India,” Modern Asian Studies 42 (2/3), (2008), 605.

[18] Liessmann, K., Theorie der Unbildung (Wien: Paul Verlag, 2006), 5.

[19] Dreze, J. et al. Mortality, Fertility and Gender Bias in India, Population and Development Review 21 (4), (1995).

[20] Shariff, Abusaleh, Economic and Political Weekly, 30 (46), (1995), 2948.

[21] Jeffrey, P., Jeffrey, R., “Mission, “120.

[22] Hasan, Z., Menon, R., Unequal Citizens (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), 130.

[23] Hasan, Menon, “Unequal Citizens,“ 130. Muslim women report greater consultation than Hindus for all categories, especially for major purchases.”

[24] Hasan, Menon, “Citizens,“ 137. Higher participation is reported by younger generation and in urban areas.

[25] Also in Agarwal, B., Bargaining and Gender Relations (Delhi: Univeristy of Delhi, 1997).

[26] Quasmi, M. S., Madrasa Education Framework (New Delhi:  Manak Publications, 2005),121 – 130.

[27] Vatuk, S., “Islamic Feminism in India: Indian Muslim Women Activists and the Reform of Muslim Personal Law,“ Modern Asian Studies, 42, Special Edition 2 – 3 (2008), 502.

[28] Agnes, F., “Interrogating “Consent” and “Agency” across the Complex Terrain of Family Laws in India,“ Social Difference Online 1 (Dec. 2011).

[29] Vatuk, Feminism, 503.

[30] Welchman, L., “Muslim Family Laws. Does the Law mean what it says?” Social Difference Online, 1 (Dec. 2011), 63-79.

[31] Parashar, A., “Just Family Law,” in Men’s Laws Women’s Lives, ed. Jaising I., (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2005), 310.

[32] Fazalhboy, N., “Muslim Women and Property Rights,” in Muslim Women’s Rights in India, ed. Hasan, Z., (New Brunsvick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), chapter 2.

[33] Fazalhboy, “Property Rights.“

[34] Winkelman, M., Minds, 164-170.

[35] Winkelman, M., Minds, 164-170.

[36] Blaydes, L., Linzer, D. The Political Economy of Women’s Support to Fundamentalist Islam (Stanford: Stanford University, 2004), 5.

[37] Mahmood, S., Politics of Piety (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), chapter 5.

[38] Winkelman, “Curtain,“ 95-116.

[39]The effect on businesses e.g. in Field, E. et al. “Do Traditional Institutions Constrain a Female Entrepreneurship? A Field Experiment on Business Training in India.,“ in IFMR Research Working Paper (New Delhi: Center for Microfinance, 2010), 3-30.

[40] Nussbaum, M., Women and Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 84.

[41] Winkelman, M., “Everyday Life in a Girls’ Madrasah in Delhi,” in Radhika, Ch., Jeffery, P. eds. Educational Regimes in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Sage Publications 2005).

[42] Teachers cited in Winkelman, “Curtain,” chapter 4.



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